Gilad Edelman in Wired:
WE LIVE IN an age of manipulation. An extensive network of commercial surveillance tracks our every move and a fair number of our thoughts. That data is fed into sophisticated artificial intelligence and used by advertisers to hit us with just the right sales pitch, at just the right time, to get us to buy a toothbrush or sign up for a meal kit or donate to a campaign. The technique is called behavioral advertising, and it raises the frightening prospect that we’ve been made the subjects of a highly personalized form of mind control.
Or maybe that fear is precisely backwards. The real trouble with digital advertising, argues former Google employee Tim Hwang—and the more immediate danger to our way of life—is that it doesn’t work.
Hwang’s new book, Subprime Attention Crisis, lays out the case that the new ad business is built on a fiction. Microtargeting is far less accurate, and far less persuasive, than it’s made out to be, he says, and yet it remains the foundation of the modern internet: the source of wealth for some of the world’s biggest, most important companies, and the mechanism by which almost every “free” website or app makes money. If that shaky foundation ever were to crumble, there’s no telling how much of the wider economy would go down with it.
Salomé Viljoen in Phenomenal World:
Since the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, critics of widely used internet communications services have warned of the misuse of personal data. Alongside familiar concerns regarding user privacy and state surveillance, a now-decades-long thread connects a group of theorists who view data—and in particular data about people—as central to what they have termed informational capitalism. Critics locate in datafication—the transformation of information into commodity—a particular economic process of value creation that demarcates informational capitalism from its predecessors. Whether these critics take “information” or “capitalism” as the modifier warranting primary concern, datafication, in their analysis, serves a dual role: both a process of production and a form of injustice.
In arguments levied against informational capitalism, the creation, collection, and use of data feature prominently as an unjust way to order productive activity. For instance, in her 2019 blockbuster The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshanna Zuboff likens our inner lives to a pre-Colonial continent, invaded and strip-mined of data by technology companies seeking profits. Elsewhere, Jathan Sadowski identifies data as a distinct form of capital, and accordingly links the imperative to collect data to the perpetual cycle of capital accumulation. Julie Cohen, in the Polanyian tradition, traces the “quasi-ownership through enclosure” of data and identifies the processing of personal information in “data refineries” as a fourth factor of production under informational capitalism.
Critiques breed proposals for reform. Thus, data governance emerges as key terrain on which to discipline firms engaged in datafication and to respond to the injustices of informational capitalism.
Raphaële Chappe and Mark Blyth debate Sebastian Mallaby in Foreign Affairs (registration required):
The COVID-19 recession has prompted states to offer vast amounts of financial support to firms and households. When combined with steps that central banks have taken in response to the financial crisis of 2008, the bailout is so large that it has ushered in what Sebastian Mallaby, writing in the July/August 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, calls “the age of magic money.” The combination of negative interest rates and low inflation, Mallaby writes, has created a world in which “don’t tax, just spend” makes for a surprisingly sustainable fiscal policy.
The thrust of that description is accurate. But the world Mallaby describes is not a direct result of responses to the financial crisis and the pandemic, as he contends. Nor should it come as much of a surprise.
The roots of the current moment lie in the late 1990s, when the U.S. Federal Reserve responded to the collapse of a major hedge fund by cutting interest rates in an effort to help financial markets avoid more widespread losses.
Elizabeth Lowry at The Guardian:
When Hilary Mantel first began to write for the London Review of Books in 1987 she warned the editor that she had “no critical training whatsoever”. “Thank goodness,” you think. What Mantel has instead are much more useful qualities: a researcher’s in-depth grasp of every topic she writes about, fearlessness, originality and robust common sense. Her wide-ranging pieces, spanning three decades, are the best kind of critical writing, rich with recondite knowledge, wearing their learning lightly.
The essays in this collection explore subjects – France’s ancien régime and the revolution, Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII, illness and the body, spiritualism and visionary experience – that the double Booker winner has made her own in her fiction and her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003). What sets Mantel’s novels apart is also what sets her critical writing apart: an unerring eye for the telling detail, the clue that will unlock what she calls “the puzzle of personal identity”.
Gary Saul Morson in First Things:
No writer understood loneliness better than Chekhov. People long for understanding, and try to confide their feelings, but more often than not, others are too self-absorbed to care. In Chekhov’s plays, unlike those of his predecessors, characters speak past each other. Often enough, they talk in turn, but do not converse. Dunyasha, the maid in The Cherry Orchard, is eager to tell Anya, who has just arrived from abroad, that the clerk Yepikhodov proposed to her. Anya is too absorbed in her own memories to listen.
Dunyasha: I’ve waited for you, my joy, my precious . . . I must tell you at once, I can’t wait another minute . . .
Anya: [listlessly] What?
Dunyasha: The clerk, Yepikhodov, proposed to me just after Easter.
Anya: You always talk about the same thing. . . . [Straightening her hair]. I’ve lost all my hairpins . . .
Dunyasha: I really don’t know what to think. He loves me—he loves me so!
Anya: [looking through the door into her room, tenderly] My, room, my windows. . . . I am home!
Chekhov’s audience cannot help thinking: If only we would enter into the feelings of others, life would be so much better.
In one early story, written before Chekhov imagined he could ever be a serious author, a cabman, Iona, tries time and time again to tell each of his fares about the death of his son, but everyone is in a hurry and no one pays any attention. He longs to share his grief, but he returns his horse to the stable as lonely as before. As the story ends, he at last addresses someone who appears to listen: his horse. “That’s how it is old girl,” he explains. “He went and died for no reason. . . .
Now suppose, you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?” The story ends: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”
The Right Word
The right word
Outside the door,
lurking in the shadows,
is a terrorist.
Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door,
taking shelter in the shadows,
is a freedom fighter.
I haven’t got this right.
Outside, waiting in the shadows,
is a hostile militant.
Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags?
Outside your door,
watchful in the shadows,
is a guerrilla warrior.
God help me.
Outside, defying every shadow,
stands a martyr.
I saw his face.
No words can help me now.
Just outside the door,
lost in shadows,
is a child who looks like mine.
One word for you.
Outside my door,
his hand too steady,
his eyes too hard
is a boy who looks like your son, too.
I open the door.
Come in, I say.
Come in and eat with us.
The child steps in
and carefully, at my door,
takes off his shoes.
by Imtiaz Dharker
from The Terrorist at My Table
publisher: Bloodaxe, 2006
Lizzie Widdicombe in The New Yorker:
Ah, election season. There’s a patriotic buzz in the air. Bumper stickers and lawn signs all over the neighborhood. Now comes the time when we check the location of our polling places, make a plan to vote—and pack a “go bag” in case we need to take to the streets in sustained mass protest to protect the integrity of the vote count. That last one is not something you’d expect to be doing in the United States, but things are different in the Trump era. For months, the President has been warning that he might not concede the election in November if he loses, telling reporters who asked him to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” It sounded ominous, although it was hard to imagine how he could make good on the threat to stick around no matter what. Then, media organizations began publishing pieces outlining the myriad ways in which the President and his allies might turn a narrow loss into a win. The possibilities include familiar tactics—contesting mail-in ballots and turning the process into Bush v. Gore on steroids—and others that sound straight out of a police state. For example, Trump could summon federal agents or his supporters to stop a recount or intimidate voters. According to some experts, this would constitute an autogolpe, or “self coup”: when a President who obtained power through constitutional means holds onto it through illegitimate ones, beginning the slide into authoritarianism.
O.K., then. Time to start getting ready. But how, exactly, do we do that? In September, a group of organizers and researchers published a fifty-five-page manual called “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” which has been downloaded more than eighteen thousand times. And the Indivisible Project, along with a coalition called Stand Up America, are preparing their members to take to the streets if Trump contests the election results. “I’ve been beating the drum on this particular cause since July, and I’m delighted to see so many people coming around to it,” the activist and sociologist George Lakey said recently. His own “Aha!” moment came when Trump sent federal agents in military fatigues to Portland, Oregon, to tangle with protesters. “It hit me, the way Trump is dealing with Portland, Oregon, that’s a test,” he said. He guessed that Trump was hoping to provoke a violent backlash from the protesters, so that he could lay the groundwork for not accepting the election results, under the pretense that the country had descended into violent chaos. “Trump can be underestimated by the left,” Lakey said. “He gets made fun of, but he’s shrewd.”
Jeevika Verma at NPR:
Kazim Ali’s latest book of poems is born out of our collective existential crisis. How do we continue to survive “in a world governed by storm and noise”? Creating an ingenious form on the page, Ali uses sound to give us a sort of research project that grapples with this crisis of survival over time. But the project’s beauty manifests from the impossibility of its findings. After all, how is one supposed to answer the colossal question of existence?
Ali, who is an accomplished translator, editor, and teacher, takes on this task by going beyond our understanding of language. As such, with three long poems strung together by four short ones, the collection is a form in itself, complete in its sequential innovation. It is intentional in its intricacy as it seeps through the pages and transcends something that can be contained.
Throughout The Voice of Sheila Chandra, Ali grabs fragments of stories to depict the ways we study our past, realize our survival, and move into the next sequence.
Zeke Hausfather and Alex Trembath in Politico:
Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial oil and gas extraction method usually called “fracking” — has divided Democrats and the political left for a decade now. Many in the environmental community claim that allowing fracking is incompatible with climate action. Others, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, take a more nuanced position: During their respective debates, both Biden and Harris emphasized that a Biden-Harris administration would not ban fracking.
While most environmental groups tend to be on the side of a ban, there are actually strong environmental justifications for Biden and Harris’s light touch on fracking today. In fact, there are reasons to worry that even a partial ban on fracking could slow decarbonization efforts in the near-term. What’s more, the deployment of some clean energy technologies could depend, perhaps counterintuitively, on fracking.
Phillip Meylan in The Factual:
From Jacob Blake, to George Floyd, to Breonna Taylor, 2020 has seen immense pressure to re-examine how the police interact with society. The oft-cited statistic that Black individuals are several times more likely to be shot during police interactions has come under intense scrutiny as a result. While the generalized viewpoint on the left is that this is evidence of systemic racism, skeptics on the right counter that this is a result of Black people being responsible for a disproportionate amount of violent crime, not systemic racism in the police. At the same time, there’s an increasing number of voices on the right that acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in policing, marking a shift in attitudes since the killing of Michael Brown and the national emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
This week, The Factual set out to survey how the media has covered the issue of systemic racism in the police, from its definition, to the evidence of its existence, to its skeptics, to the steps necessary to better understand the issue and how to address it.
Emma Garman in The Paris Review:
In the early thirties, for a certain clique of Left Bank–dwelling American lesbians, the place to be was not an expat haunt like the Café de Flore or Le Deux Magots. Nor was it Le Monocle, the wildly popular nightclub owned by tuxedoed butch Lulu du Montparnasse and named for the accessory worn to signal one’s orientation. According to the writer Solita Solano, the “only important thing in Paris” was a study group on the philosophies of the Greek-Armenian mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, held at Jane Heap’s apartment. Heap, a Kansas-born artist, writer, and gallerist, was Gurdjieff’s official emissary, a rare honor. Under her supervision, the group engaged in intense self-revelation, narrating the stories of their lives without censoring or embellishing. As the author Kathryn Hulme explained in her memoir, Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure, the goal was to uncover the real I and thus escape being “a helpless slave to circumstances, to whatever chameleon personality took the initiative.”
Among those who gathered in Heap’s small sitting room were Janet Flanner, the New Yorker Paris correspondent and Solano’s lifelong partner; the journalist and author Djuna Barnes; and the actress Louise Davidson. One attendee, Hulme noted, would enter the room “like a Valkyrie” and “knew how to load the questions she fired at Jane, how to bait her to reveal more than perhaps was intended for beginners.” The Valkyrie was Margaret Caroline Anderson, founder of the trailblazing Little Review, with whom Heap had first encountered Gurdjieff in New York in the early twenties. Heap and Anderson, whose friendship outlasted a love affair and a professional partnership, were kindred geniuses with an exclusive affinity. When Barnes, after a fling with Heap, marveled at her “deep personal madness,” Anderson replied: “Deep personal knowledge—a supreme sanity.” Heap called Anderson “my blessed antagonistic complement.” Via their shared endeavors and the cross-pollination of their ideas—artistic, literary, and spiritual—these two remarkable women left an indelible imprint on avant-garde culture between the wars.
Sanjana Varghese in The Baffler:
IN LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND, the local police force has indicated that they will be testing out a kind of “emotion recognition” technology on CCTV footage which they collect around Gainsborough, a town in the county. Lincolnshire’s police and crime commissioner, Marc Jones, secured funding from the UK Home Office for this project, but the exact system that the police will use, and its exact supplier, are still not confirmed. All that the police force knows is that they want to use it.
It may seem like an overreach for a provincial police force to roll out a nebulous new technology, even the description of which sounds sinister, but I’ve started to think there is a less obvious reason behind their choice. Facial recognition has been the subject of much scrutiny and regulation; in the UK, a man named Ed Bridges took the South Wales Police to court over the use of automated facial recognition and won. But the South Wales Police force has indicated that they will continue to use their system, with the chief constable Matt Jukes saying that he was “confident this is a judgement we can work with.”
—for Michael S. Harper
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
With your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
by Rita Dove
from Collected Poems 1974-2004
W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 2016
Clifford Backman at berfrois:
When one thinks about the Merovingians—and, really, who doesn’t?—one seldom thinks of the Mediterranean. There is good reason for that. Whatever else the Merovingians may have been, they were a hodgepodge of northern clans, tribes, and kingdoms who came from one end of the northern tier of Europe and settled eventually in the other. They drank beer rather than wine; cooked in lard rather than olive oil; avoided cities as centers of evil spirits; had little literature that we know of and less science; had no ships other than rivercraft; and lived, fought, and died on scattered parcels of farmland cleared from the immense, dense forest of the continent. That is not to say they fitted the prejudiced Dark Age caricature of them as mere “barbarians”—a kind of gruesome but temporary way station between the glories of Rome and Aachen. As shown by a generation of scholars from Walter Goffart and Ian Wood to Chris Wickham, Andreas Fischer, and Peter Heather, the period from Rome’s fall to Aachen’s ascent deserves to be studied for its own self and not merely as another of history’s dreary “periods of transition”; after all, every age is one of transition, and the transitions involved—political, cultural, intellectual, technological, and every other type—are usually themselves the chief points of interest.
Sharanya Deepak at Literary Hub:
Today, Kashmiri writers are of all forms. They write folklore, journalism, novels, blogs, poems, ghazals, nazms: literature can be found scribbled on trees, on social media, in notebooks kept in attics. They write across languages: in Kashmiri, Urdu and English, and within Kashmir lie distinctions, of class, caste and language.
Writing in Kashmir is not only a question of importance, says Kashmiri novelist, Shahnaz Bashir in an interview with Wande Magazine but “a question of duty.” Bashir’s fiction is set in the decade of the 1990s, where Kashmir saw a series of human rights crimes by the Indian armed forces, including incarceration and mass arrests of young civilian men. Claiming that it was aiming to curb militancy, the Indian military rampaged through the region, arresting and torturing Kashmiris on sight. Bashir’s first novel The Half Mother circles a woman’s life as she waits for her son, who is taken by the Indian army, to return. It reflects on the realities of many such women who are denigrated to “halves”—half wife, half mother—when their male family members are disappeared.
David Byrne in Reasons to be Cheerful:
Like a lot of folks, I occasionally hear people espouse values and beliefs different and often counter to my own. When I was young, I didn’t understand this. Many of these beliefs and positions seemed irrational to me. How could people believe such crazy things? But as I read, traveled and met more people, I learned that values and convictions that might seem strange to me often serve a purpose for others.
Sometimes that purpose is simply the sharing of these values and beliefs with others who feel the same way. Shared beliefs can foster a sense of community, or provide meaning in people’s lives. It seems that we as humans have evolved to need something that provides unity and cohesion. Sometimes that might be liking the same songs or movies. Or, if that means believing in statues that cry or space aliens, well, okay, maybe no harm done.
I have come to sense that I, too, might harbor some odd beliefs — and, like others, I come up with convoluted rationalizations for them. I have a set of values that, to me, should be seen as self evident and should therefore be adopted by everyone. But if we’re going to find common ground and live together, we need to at least attempt to understand the mindsets of the people who think differently from us.